Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Original Godzilla Has Some Weak Lead Characters But An Impressively Realized Ominous Tone

If you had told any of the members of the cast and crew of the original 1954 Godzilla film that what they were working on would end up being one of the most influential features of the 20th century, they likely would have thought you were batty at best. But that's just what happened, as a somber exercise in contemplating the consequences of nuclear warfare through the prism of a monster movie turned out to be something that resonated with audiences across the globe to such a profound point that the monstrous Godzilla is still making new movies in both his home country of Japan and in the United States of America.

Contrary to the light-hearted tone that would be found in many of his subsequent adventures, this original Godzilla film is a heavily melancholy motion picture that places an emphasis on the fear people feel at being caught in the path of the big lizard's rampage. Apparently awakened from an extended slumber due to nuclear weapon testing, Godzilla is now going on a rampage across Japan that leaves endless destruction in his wake. A few of the citizens trying to figure out just how to stop this beast are reclusive scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Kirata), romantic couple Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) and Emika Yamane (Momoko Kochi) as well as nature-loving scientist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura).

These characters are broadly drawn individuals who serve as a reminder that one really shouldn't come to a Godzilla movie hoping for fully fleshed out characters. However, and I know this will sound like sacrilege, the more thinly-drawn characters here proved to be more of a hurdle to get past than the characters in, say, the 2014 Godzilla film, mostly because that Gareth Edwards directed feature is placing a great emphasis on spectacle and atmosphere whereas this 1954 film directed Ishiro Honda is clearly wanting a large share of its storytelling focus to be on following the characters and how their relationships (namely the love triangle between Serizawa, Ogata and Emika Yamane) evolve in the face of Godzilla's carnage and neither the characters nor their relationships are ever all that compelling.

Making these kinds of perfunctory but not all that memorable characters the central focus of this inaugural Godzilla movie is a key reason why this film remains more admirable than outright captivating. On a more positive note, it should be noted that the always terrific Takashi Shimura, playing the most interesting character in the story, delivers the sort of mournful role that he's able to so effortlessly fill with such soulfulness. It isn't just the four leads that get the spotlight in Godzilla of course, we do some time to see Godzilla do what he does best, which entails stomping on buildings and laying waste to man-made cities.

Such sequences are easily the highlight of the entire movie and manage to make a character as universally beloved as Godzilla immensely threatening. Taking time to capture a mother consoling her grieving child in the middle of one of Godzilla's attacks or having characters tend to the clearly wounded after such an attack has ceased allows for the imposing nature of Godzilla to be truly felt while well-done visual effects further accentuate the terrifying nature of this creature by ensuring that there's a seamlessness to when Godzilla (here brought to life by a man in a rubber suit) interacts with his surroundings or even live-action elements. All of this outstanding visual effects work from 1954 aid the ominous tone of Godzilla rather than detract from it.

The fact that Godzilla is able to be so well-realized as a figure of relentless menace is a boon for this original Godzilla movie in a myriad of ways, but most importantly, it helps the monster's status as a stand-in for the nuclear warfare that forever altered the country of Japan. Godzilla as a movie doesn't hide the fact that it's referencing real-world events that occurred just a decade prior (one character even explicitly talks about how they're frustrated that they survived the Hiroshima bombing only to be caught in the wake of Godzilla's warpath) and the skillfully-executed parallels to real-world horrors lend some gripping thematic heft to this endeavor. Though its lead characters, who take up the majority of the screentime, could stand to be more interesting, both the grim tone of Godzilla and its lead monster work well enough to make it easy to see why this motion picture resonated deeply enough in its initial release to spawn well over 50 years of follow-up's.

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